Getting an ogle in Google

Search engine: The Calif. Internet company launches Orkut, a social networking service.

January 24, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Google Inc. has quietly released a new online social networking service in a bold move by the Mountain View, Calif., search-engine company into one of the hottest areas on the Internet.

Called Orkut, the service allows users to link up with friends of their friends and aims to "increase the overall satisfaction of social life." It is much like the hot Sunnyvale, Calif., online dating service Friendster -- but possibly with more features.

The launch comes just three months after Google entered talks to acquire Friendster -- reportedly for $30 million -- and was rebuffed.

The project was developed by a Google engineer and a few of his colleagues, and is still in testing mode, according to Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez.

She said Google encouraged its launch but otherwise is taking a hands-off approach.

Orkut is the latest of dozens of similar social networking services that have started over the past year.

Google says it has no plans to use the personal information supplied by Orkut users for searches.

Like Friendster, Orkut -- www.orkut.com -- accepts only people invited by someone already on the network.

Once accepted, you can see the profiles of the person who invited you and his or her friends. You can also see profiles -- and pictures -- of friends of their friends, to multiple degrees -- even further out than with Friendster.

Orkut also offers a much more expansive hand-holding process as you enter your own profile and set varying degrees of intimacy with different people. You can even rate your friends using smile, heart and ice-cube icons -- with private scores, of course. When enough people have rated a friend as "cool," an ice cube will appear in their profile.

Orkut enables users to limit who can view certain personal information, for example, the participants' e-mail addresses, instant-messaging names or telephone numbers.

Once signed on, an invitee can quickly find out that Google spokesman David Krane is "left-leaning" and lives with a partner and pets in Menlo Park, Calif., or that co-founder Larry Page's fashion is "alternative, contemporary, smart, trendy." But Sergey Brin, the other Google co-founder, says only that he is from the United States.

It's still unclear how Orkut would affect relations with the venture capitalists on Google's small board. Three of the six board members have invested millions of dollars into competing services.

John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Ram Shriram, an angel investor, have invested in Friendster. Michael Moritz, of Sequoia Capital, Calif., has invested in Mountain View's LinkedIn, a networking service more aimed at the business community.

None of the three venture capitalists could be reached for comment. Friendster's Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Abrams, reached on a cell phone, declined to comment.

Orkut is named after the engineer, Orkut Buyukkokten, who initiated the project in the 20 percent of his work time that Google allots employees to pursue their own innovative projects or passions. A Stanford University graduate, he created two other social networking sites before joining Google in 2002: InCircle and Clubnexus.

Despite the independence Google is affording Orkut, there still are obvious ties. Orkut is "affiliated" with Google, according to the Web site.

Orkut will share "any information that you submit and any non-personally identifiable information we collect with Google," its Web site says. However, Google's own privacy statement says it does not provide particular information on individuals to third parties.

Orkut also says it retains non-exclusive rights to whatever information is posted on the site.

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